German Stratergy / War Aims

Britain constructed substantial anti-invasion defences in both World Wars. The threat of invasion was certainly real during the Second War, but what about the First War?  Some in Germany may have muted the possibility of invasion in the autumn of 1914, with one suggested scenario of landing ten army corps before Christmas following the departure of the British Expeditionary Force to France.  Although Germany did come to regard Britain as her main enemy during the First War, invasion was never seriously considered by her High Command in light of Britain’s naval power. Unrestricted submarine warfare and strategical bombing of London were both considered the way to bring victory against Britain.


Germany began to fear a war on two fronts in the 1870’s, either against France and Austria or France and Russia. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder realised the danger of such a situation, meaning even if Germany was to defeat one enemy she would have to shift her forces to meet the other, meaning any victory could not be exploited. As the military strength of France and Russia increased and an alliance between the two seemed likely, Moltke did not believe that Germany could win a future war with a quick decisive battle and a victor’s peace imposed as in the past. Any war would be drawn out and military action indecisive. Moltke favoured a diplomatic strategy, both in peace and war times, to ensure Germany fought any future war on the most favourable terms possible. He did still believe that a well trained German Army could still inflict enough damage on its enemies in a number of battles to force them to the negotiating table.


In 1882 Alfred Von Schlieffen became Chief of the General Staff and Russia and France signed a military convention of military support if either was attacked by Germany soon after. War now seemed likely to Germany. Schlieffen believed Germany could not afford to fight a war of a long duration. The Russo-Japanese war gave Schlieffen some hope; the Russian Army may be large but it was no where near as modern as other armies and would take  time to reform. This led him to believe a short war with a decisive victory was still possible if Germany could get to grips with France. The problem for Schlieffen was that France intended to fight a defensive battle in its substantial fortifications along the border with Germany. Germany had to force the French onto the battlefield and keep the war mobile, the type of warfare in which Germany excelled in – this was the basis of the so called Schlieffen Plan where Germany out-flanked the French fortifications by sweeping through neutral Belgian.


Schlieffen was succeeded by Moltke the Younger in 1906. Moltke was faced with an increasing dilemma as the Russian Army underwent modernisation and reforms at a much faster pace than envisaged by Schlieffen.  The German General Staff believed that by 1922 at the latest the Russian Army would be invincible.  Germany could not hope to fight and win a short war against Russia leaving Moltke no option but to concentrate against France, along the lines of Schlieffen’s planning. Germany used the political situation that arose out of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand for launching a pre-emptive strike against France. Germany’s offensive was stopped on the Marne.


With the failure of the Schlieffen / Moltke plan, Moltke was replaced by Erich von Falkenhayn. Initially Falkenhayn still believed a quick decision was possible in the West. At first he planned a strategic withdrawal and a regrouping of the German armies with a view to launching an offensive against the left flank of the French army. However he was dissuaded from this plan due to several reasons and in the end decided to resume the offensive against the extreme right flank of the Allied armies, with subsidiary attacks to prevent the French from reinforcing their left wing.  However it was the French who threatened the German right wing, being able to use the railway network to transport troops faster than the Germans. The French were also not on the verge of collapse due to exhaustion as assumed by Falkenhayn.  So began the so called “race to the sea”.


Falkenhayn eventually built up his strong strike force on the right wing and was able to go on the offensive – the First Battle of Ypres. This did not go to plan, the enemy being able to hold the German attacks from hastily constructed defences. This now convinced him that the war would not be won by a decisive victory and indeed that Germany lacked the strength to defeat all her enemies.  Germany would have to convince one of her enemies by diplomacy as well as militarily that the price of the war was not worth it.  With one enemy gone, the others would have to follow or face defeat in the field.  But which enemy to detach from the Allied coalition - Russia, France or Britain? Falkenhayn believed that Russia would be the easiest to negotiate a settlement with and then France would likely follow. In the case of Britain, Falkenhayn was convinced she wanted to see the destruction of Germany and that a negotiated peace was impossible. Falkenhayn in fact believed that Britain was Germany’s main enemy. As early as August 1914 he wrote in his diary “without the defeat of England this war will be lost for us”. According to Bethmann, Falkenhayn planned to starve Britain with a blockade based in Belgium if she did not settle for peace following a negotiated peace with Russia and France; he accepted that this would take months and that any war with England, once Russia and France were out of the way, would not be over quickly.


Unfortunately for Falkenhayn, a large part of the German Army did not share his views, still believing that a decisive victory could be won in the east against Russia. The most notable generals holding this view were the popular Hindenburg and Ludendorff. This led to a conflict between Falkenhayn, believing that Germany’s real enemies lay in the west and his most popular generals, who believed that a decisive victory could be won in the east against Russia, and should be the main objective of future military operations.


During the early part of 1915 Falkenhayn was forced onto the offensive in the east to relieve pressure on Germany’s Austro-Hungarian allies.  However Falkenhayan’s aims differed from those of Hindenburg and Ludendorf.  Falkenhayn still believed that a decisive victory was not possible against Russia – his aim was to inflict maximum damage on the Russian army, with as little as possible on the German army.  This led to post war criticism that Falkenhayn lacked vision in his careful feeding in of German troops to the battles and dissipating his forces in diversionary attacks. It was argued he should have been bolder, diverting troops from the west and inflicting a crushing defeat on Russia.  However he did achieve his aim, inflicting 2,000,000 casualties on Russia; for the moment Russia was out of the picture, allowing Falkenhayn to concentrate his forces in the west against Germany’s main enemies.


Although Falkenhayn judged Britain to be Germany’s main enemy, it was against the French that he decided to strike. This was for two main reasons; firstly, the British sector was one of the most heavily concentrated with troops and secondly, even if a powerful blow was delivered against the British sector, Britain itself would still be unharmed and the French army, Britain’s ally, still intact. Falkenhayn decided to deliver the blow directly against Britain with unrestricted submarine warfare, while on the Western Front, he planned to knock “England’s best sword”, France, out of its hand.


Falkenhayn’s plan was to compel the Allied armies to attack strongly prepared German positions, where the attacks would be decisively defeated with large casualties resulting for the Allies. This would compel the Allies to seek peace on terms favourable to Germany.  If this failed, a strong attack would be delivered against the shattered Allied forces.  This strategy derived from the huge losses Germany had inflicted on Russia, largely with concentrated heavy artillery, and the fact that German forces had been on the defensive on the Western Front throughout 1915 and had held against all attempts of the Allied armies to break through.


Falkenhayn decided to strike at the historic town of Verdun. This was a target he considered France would attempt to hold at all costs. Falkenhayn planned limited attacks supported with a huge concentration of artillery. France would be compelled to counter attack to recover lost ground, where her forces would be pounded to destruction by the heavy guns. Falkenhayn reasoned Britain would be forced to launch hasty counter attacks to relieve pressure on the French, which would also be destroyed in front of the German defences. If the Allies did not seek peace, Falkenhayn would then launch his own powerful attack against the severely weakened Allied forces.


The German attack began on February 21st 1916 but did not achieve its aims. Falkenhayn’s strategy failed for a number of reasons, including his underestimation of French resolve and military strength and Britain’s refusal to launch hasty counter attacks until her Army was ready.  He also never really fully divulged his attentions to his commanders carrying out the operations, and the battle drifted into a full scale attempt to capture Verdun instead of the envisaged attacks with limited objectives, inflicting as many casualties on the German troops as the French. The strength of the Allied attack on the Somme took Germany by surprise and forced her back onto the defensive. Ultimately Falkenhayn was relieved of command and Hindenburg and Ludendorff took control of Germany’s strategic leadership on August 2nd 1916.


The failure at Verdun, and Falkenhayn’s insistence on the Somme that ground was to be held to the last man and any ground lost to be retaken with immediate counter attacks, had weakened the German army and Hindenburg and Ludendorff were forced back on to the defensive on the Western Front. During early 1917, the strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line was carried out.  Ludendorff was also convinced that unrestricted submarine warfare would force Britain to sue for peace. The unrestricted U-Boat campaign began again in February 1917 and at first produced promising results.


During 1917 the German defences held against Allied attacks at Arras, Chemin des Dames, Ypres and Cambrai, although heavy losses were still inflicted on the German army. At the same time, due to the human and economic cost of the war, Russia was in revolution. Germany was well aware of this and did all she could to encourage the unrest.  Following the Brusiloff offensive, Russia’s last of the war where many Russian soldiers refused to fight, Ludendorff launched a carefully planned counterstroke. He felt now was the time to strike at the peak of disillusionment in the Russian army.  The Austro-German attack cut through the Russian defences and Revolution followed with the Bolsheviks calling for immediate peace. Russia signed an armistice with Germany in December 1917.


Another key event of 1917 was the entry of the United States of America into the war. Following the Russian collapse, Germany was able to move troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front. She now had numerical superiority of troops over the Allies in the West but this was only temporary as eventually the material and troops of the United States would prove overwhelming.  It was also obvious that the U-Boat campaign had failed. Ludendorff knew he had to strike in early 1918, but against whom – the French or British? A number of plans were prepared, the two main options being a strike against the French at Verdun, with the aim of pinching out the salient and bringing a collapse of French morale, or a strike against Britain in the direction of Hazebrouk. The offensive against Britain was favoured as it was felt Britain was in an awkward position with the sea to their north and west.   After the war, Ludendorff also wrote he favoured an attack against Britain as he felt the French army was tactically superior to the British army. The final plan was an offensive with a spearhead around St Quentin, to establish a position along the Somme from Peronne to Ham, when the attack would move west and roll up the British front.


The German offensive ultimatelground to a halt and despite quickly shifting the attack to other areas, with the aim of breaking through and not allowing time for the Allies to reinforce the various threatened points on their front, the German Spring offensives failed. The German army was exhausted and the Allies went onto the offensive, with a decisive victory over the German army leading to the Armistice on November 11th.


In summary, in the lead up to the war, Germany was focused on a continental war on two fronts.  Throughout the war, Germany’s goal was to eliminate one of Germany’s continental enemies (Russia or France) so she could concentrate her forces decisively against the other.  As the war progressed, Britain was increasingly regarded as the main enemy.  Germany’s leaders thought that a negotiated peace with France or Russia was possible but not with Britain, who they felt wanted nothing less than German destruction.  Both Falkenhayn and Ludendorff considered that submarine warfare could achieve victory against Britain.  To some extent it was also hoped that strategical bombing of London would force Britain to see sense. At no point was the invasion of Britain seriously considered. Despite this, the fear of invasion in Britain remained throughout the war and Field Marshall Sir W Robertson noted in “Soldiers and Statesmen 1914-1918” that from 1914 until a few months before the Armistice, no substantial transfer of troops from Britain to France or any other foreign theatre was sanctioned until the needs of home defence had been considered.